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California and the West

Ventura County Measures Aim to Clamp a Lid on Urban Sprawl

Growth: Projects, including those in San Diego, would require voter approval. Farmers are fighting back.

September 13, 1998|MIGUEL BUSTILLO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VENTURA — They want to lock up Ventura County--and give voters the key.

With the strictest set of growth control measures ever proposed in Southern California, the activists behind the Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources (SOAR) campaign are hoping to halt urban sprawl in Ventura County by stripping politicians of the power to permit it.

Meanwhile, a similar measure will go before San Diego County voters in November. Dubbed the Rural Heritage and Watershed Initiative, it seeks to prevent urbanization in the San Diego back country for the next 30 years unless a majority of voters says otherwise.

As usually seems to be the case with Southern California's slow growth activism--the last major drives were during the 1980s building boom--the campaigns come as earthmovers are picking up steam and the real estate market is bursting through the roof.

Convinced that elected leaders are steering Ventura County down the same path as Orange County and Los Angeles--with, as they see it, distinct cities merging into a homogeneous mass of concrete--activists say the time has come for voters to take the reins on critical land-use decisions.

A countywide measure would prevent, through 2020, farmland and open space outside cities from being rezoned for development without voter approval, forcing politicians to stick to existing blueprints for growth.

SOAR measures in Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks, Camarillo, Oxnard and Santa Paula would bar those cities from expanding beyond designated borders unless voters decided it was OK. Another measure will go before Moorpark voters early next year; Ventura voters approved such a measure in 1995.

Not surprisingly for an area that prides itself on its country feel, the measures have become the hottest political issue to hit Ventura County in a long time.

"It's our future, so why shouldn't we decide?" said former Ventura Councilman Steve Bennett, who founded SOAR along with former Mayor Richard Francis. "Year after year, people vote for politicians because they say they're going to stop urban sprawl, and year after year, the politicians go and do something different after the election."

With equal fervor, opponents argue that Ventura County's existing land-use policies--already the toughest in Southern California--have clearly stemmed sprawl, and that "ballot box zoning" measures are a radical step that would be rife with unintended consequences.

All major farm leaders oppose SOAR, characterizing it as a selfish effort by Johnny-come-lately suburbanites to protect pretty vistas without purchasing the land.

"We in agriculture are the poster boys for SOAR, but this is not good for agriculture, and the ag community does not support it," said Rob Roy of the Ventura County Agricultural Assn., a leader of the anti-SOAR Coalition for Community Planning. "This is a very deceptive measure. It has nothing to do with saving agriculture and everything to do with no growth."

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Every major business organization and nearly every chamber of commerce opposes SOAR, saying the measures would drive up land prices, hurting the county's economic competitiveness and possibly forcing expanding firms out of the county.

Housing and building industry groups also condemn the measures, saying they would drive housing costs so high, and keep new construction so scarce, that many residents would find it impossible to afford a home.

In short, opposition to SOAR is fierce among the county's traditional power brokers, and voters will surely be flooded with a flurry of opposition mailers, media ads and telephone pitches in coming weeks.

Like SOAR, which held the largest petition drive in Ventura County history this year, the San Diego campaign shattered local signature-gathering records. It is being opposed by a well-heeled coalition of farmers and property rights advocates.

"The history of land use down here demonstrates that initiatives are the only way to break the stranglehold of special interests," said Duncan McFetridge, a former Ojai resident who leads the San Diego drive. "This is a great example of the right to petition the government, because we can document there's been a massive legislative failure allowing urban sprawl."

Growth control drives to take zoning power from politicians have become commonplace in the Bay Area in recent years. But urban planning experts say the Ventura and San Diego county campaigns represent the most militant attempt to crack down on runaway growth in the history of Southern California.

"These would clearly be the toughest restrictions on geographical growth expansion in Southern California," said William Fulton, author of "The Reluctant Metropolis" and editor of the California Planning & Development Report. "There's a major shift here. It started in Northern California, and it will make its way to all of Southern California before long."

Some opponents worry that if the measures carry Southern California--a longtime building industry stronghold--they could pass anywhere in the nation.

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